Try as you might, you can never see yourself as others do, which is one reason it’s fascinating to watch how European critics react to movies set in the United States. Melissa McCarthy’s “Tammy” was widely regarded as a flop in its native land, but a number of U.K. critics read it as a perceptive, if flawed, commentary on the country’s regional and class divisions. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote that “McCarthy is very good at conveying self-hate, but a self-hate which can be alchemised, through comedy, into something gentler, more self-aware and more liable to be redeemed through love.”
Sometimes that foreign perspective amounts to a rude awakening, as when audiences at the Locarno Film Festival got their first look at Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip.” According to the Hollywood Reporter, they were “shocked by the depiction of the city as a dark, competitive place whose characters are more interested in their own success than in any type of relationship with each other.”
At the press conference for the film, European journalists expressed their shock at this depiction of New York as a hostile and brutal city, a city they recognize as the cultural capital of the world. “The competition of living in a city where people are fighting against each other,” says director Alex Ross Perry, “that is exactly what New York feels like to me. There’s no shortage of people who are sickeningly repellant in their jealously and their hatred of anyone who does anything slightly more impressive than them.”
For Americans, it’s not exactly news that Manhattan has become a playground for the wealthy and that gentrification is steadily working its rent-inflating magic on the outer boroughs: New Yorkers passed around the Onion’s “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City a Horrible Place to Live” with a kind of battle-scarred pride. Much as I liked “Philip,” its portrait of New York life didn’t strike me as especially remarkable, except when contrasted to the romanticized portrayal in movies like “Step Up 3D,” which manages to make real Manhattan locations look like an in-studio recreation.
As Hollywood movies increasingly focus on a global audience, their depiction of America becomes more iconic, less rooted in any kind of recognizable reality: See the “Transformers: Age of Extinction” caption identifying Mark Wahlberg’s hometown as “Texas, U.S.A.,” or the scene in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” that takes place on a snow-covered mountain road a short drive from Midtown. (Not since “Rumble in the Bronx” has a movie demonstrated such a shaky grasp of New York geography.) Of course, this is how Hollywood has treated the rest of the world for decades: “Age of Extinction” shows no more respect for the actual layout of Hong Kong than it does the Lone Star State. What makes this doubly fascinating is that it isn’t a foreign view of the U.S. but an American’s approximation of how foreign audiences think. It’s only fair that we sample our own medicine once in a while, but it’s strangely dislocating to watch an American movie that feels like it was shot on the moon.